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French students still affected by social inequality despite egalitarian 'façade'

French Education and Youth Affairs Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer gives a dictation to school children in support of ELA, European Leucodystrophie Association, at a school in Paris, France, October 14, 2019.
French Education and Youth Affairs Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer gives a dictation to school children in support of ELA, European Leucodystrophie Association, at a school in Paris, France, October 14, 2019. Regis Duvignau, Reuters

France is still one of the countries where student performance is most affected by their economic and social background, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found in its survey published on Tuesday. It confirms an old tendency: although France's public school system is feted abroad, it does very little to solve social inequalities at home.

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Since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) started its scholastic study – the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) - in 2000, France has always been a poor student when it comes to tackling inequality in school.

And this year's PISA survey, published Tuesday, is no different: according to the OECD, French student performance is still more affected by their social and economic situation than most of their foreign counterparts.

The survey, based on two-hour tests taken by 600,000 15-year-old students, also revealed that teenagers from four large Chinese regions (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang) for the first time outperformed their contemporaries in Western nations and shared the top rankings with Singapore in reading, mathematics and science.

According to this study which is published every three years, the performance of 15-year-old French students is very slightly superior to the average of other developed countries, figuring on the same level as Germans, Belgians, British and Portuguese.

But French "underprivileged students are overrepresented when it comes to pupils in difficulty", OECD analyst Pauline Givord told AFP. Around 20 percent of privileged students are among the best performing in reading. A figure that drops to 2.4 percent among underprivileged ones.

"France is one of the countries where the students' social background most determines their performance, and we are talking about 15-year-olds," Julien Grenet, an economics of education professor and researcher at the Paris School of Economics, a research and higher education public institution, told FRANCE 24.

Record number in private schools

This reality contrasts sharply with France's proud image of its free public education system. "There is a façade where the French system fights inequalities, because all schools are supposed to be organised in the same way.

"But this façade does not really hide inequalities between institutions: you can have two secondary schools, which are organized in the very same way, but that in fact have students from completely different social backgrounds. And who will perform completely differently," Grenet said.

"This inequality is most striking during high school," which includes students aged 11 to 15, Grenet said. "Parents consider this a key moment that can determine if their child manages to get into a prestigious secondary school and renowned university afterwards, and so on. So they build strategies and dig deep into their pockets. In Paris, around 35 percent of teenagers attend private schools, which is a record for a capital city."

'Very little has been done'

According to the OECD, socio-economic inequalities in France have not worsened over the past 10 years. "But their level is still worrying," OECD analyst Eric Charbonnier told AFP. "The government must make this battle a priority."

"Very little has actually been done," Grenet said. Since 2012, French governments have tried to solve the issue: Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has decided to double the number of CP and CE1 classes (5 to 7-year-olds) in certain neighbourhoods, lowering the students-per-teacher ratio.

"This is positive, but it will take years until we see its results. And nothing has been done at the high school level: on the contrary, this government has not maintained the precedent government's efforts to tackle inequality," he said.

'French teachers rarely encourage'

"There should also be more resources, so those who teach in poor neighbourhoods are better prepared, instead of being newcomers, as is the case nowadays," Grenet suggested. "Especially when we know that a bad teacher can worsen student inequalities when they aren't properly prepared to fight it."

Some say that the French schooling problem resides elsewhere. "The lack of support, of self-confidence and anxiety have always been responsible for France's bad grades," Elise Huillery, professor at the Paris-Dauphine University, told FRANCE 24. "In France, we have teachers who rarely encourage students, rather they only point out what is wrong. So students start being afraid of their grades."

According to the survey, France is one of the worst countries when it comes to teacher-student support. "Only 57 percent of French students say their teachers seem to care about each student's progress, instead of a 70 percent average in other OECD countries."

Francette Popineau, head of the Snuipp-FSU union for primary schools, agrees: "The French system does not reward students... but rather points out what is not working. And this leads to a lack of self-confidence."

Distorted results when comparing countries

In an interview with French daily Le Figaro, Blanquer said his policy as education minister is "consistent" with results from the PISA survey, as France's situation is now "stable".

But many think that the survey should be taken with a grain of salt.

"When it comes to China, we're not talking about the whole country: only some cities took part of the study," said Grenet. "It's as if we would only take France's big cities into account! And in certain countries, not all 15-year-olds are attending school: this could distort results and give the country a higher note, as only students took part in the PISA survey. In Vietnam, for example, only 63 percent of 15-year-olds are in school.

"Either way, the French government should take this survey as a booster shot to fight inequality once again".

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